Acts 27 – Travel to Rome

There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts, about 3000 miles in all. Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature.  Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome.  It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll.  There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.

Roman Ship

That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail.  Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility.  Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt.  So too Thucydidies, who wrote his history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points.  This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells.  A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

But there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel.  If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus.  Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Beyond these parallels, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire” (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 968).

Some have questioned the historicity of this story based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.

There is something to the parallels, and it may be that Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time, but this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul had to go to Rome and the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!

While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is to demonstrate nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.


9 thoughts on “Acts 27 – Travel to Rome

  1. I think Paul was doing just that, writing himself into the story to give it credibility. Since none of us were obviously not alive back then, I assume that Paul would want us to know about his life and his travels. As James Dunn said, “Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.” That in Luke and Acts, Paul and Jesus have some resemblance between them. I wonder how Paul felt about getting shipwrecked two times in (2 Cor 11:25).

    • You mean Luke wrote himself in, not Paul. Do you think that Luke was actually there, or is he “creating” a role for himself?

  2. It is interesting to think that Luke may have embellished Paul’s journey to Rome a bit in order to stress that Paul would go through anything to get to Rome and share the Gospel. I guess I kind of assumed that there wouldn’t be embellishment in stories that we believe to be true. It makes sense when the story is obviously just a story or an allegory, but with something that we claim as a fact being embellished, I had never really thought of that being the case. The thought that Luke could have been using parallels with the Odyssey seems like it could be true, seeing how Luke was a developed writer (at least he wrote a lot better than I can) and was maybe feeling a little saucy, wanting to add something exciting to the story. Whether this be true or not, the main point of this passage is that Paul had unwavering faith at this moment, knowing for sure that the Lord would take care of them and that they would live during this tragic event. If Luke wanted to add in some embellishments to that to make it more obvious to the reader, then that’s great!

  3. I enjoyed reading this blog post as it reflected much of what I was thinking while reading chapters 27 & 28. As someone who is a devout reader, the one thing that I have found “frustrating” when reading the book of Acts is the lack of explanation or description throughout the book. For the most part, Luke has written in such a straightforward, factual style which missed the literary storytelling element that I am so used to. As I was reading the account of the shipwreck; I immediately noticed the stark difference in the writing style Luke uses. There is so much detail within these two chapters, it made me wonder just why Luke is suddenly now writing as a “storyteller”? It was interesting to read in the blog that this was not just a whimsical change of writing style, but a deliberate emphasis on the theological message Luke was intending to get across to the readers. Luke, as any good writer does, had a plan in how the book should be written, from the beginning to the end. While much of it did not need detailed accounting, this event was crucial to the understanding of Paul completing his mission. It was also interesting to see the parallels to the Odyssey or other Greek writings, which again seems so obvious once it is pointed out. Where some may criticize this as unauthentic, I find it to be a clear representation of Luke’s awareness of his original audience. To get the message across to those he was reaching, Luke styled his writing off something which was popular and well received. This in no way negates the true theological message, but rather seems to bring an authenticity to the culture of the time.

  4. It makes sense that shipwrecks were simply common in this time period. That is probably why they were popular in literature, because it was a reality for most people travelling by sea. Sending someone off by ship can guarantee that it would be difficult for them to find their way back, as well as escape easily.
    The fact that Luke’s theological motivation shows us that the gospel cannot be stopped is a huge takeaway from the ending of Acts. The gospel will continue to reach the ends of the earth, especially if you send someone on a boat, the gospel will still be going with them. The gospel was already in the hearts of those in Rome, and there is no way of stopping it by sending away one person.
    This also shows Paul’s courage and boldness to continue to stand firm in the gospel of Jesus Christ, despite what circumstances are coming against him. The “Come What May” mentality shows his undivided trust and dependence on the Lord. Dunn is correct when God will fulfill his purpose. Paul writes in Philippians 1:6 that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (NIV).
    Ultimately, Paul’s trust in Jesus despite the hearing, the shipwreck, or the persecution is so honorable and shows that the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be stopped.

  5. It does appear as a coincidence at Paul shipwrecks upon many trips to Rome. While some of those shipwrecks were horrific and there was a major threat to the lives of all of those aboard the ship, God’s grace and mercy is shown through the sparing of all of the passenger’s lives (Acts 27:44). Despite the tragedy of Paul and the other voyages experiencing this situation which was life threatening and terrifying, the gospel was still preached through God saving all of the voyagers. There were many times throughout Acts chapter twenty-seven that God could have allowed some passengers perish, through starvation or in the shipwreck or even during the storm, and yet He kept every individual safe. It is interesting to compare this story in the book of Acts to the “Odyssey” story that was written several years before this incident. It is most likely that if Luke was familiar with the story of the “Odyssey” that he also saw the parallel between the fictional literature and the experience of Paul and his traveling companions. Despite the similarities between these two stories, with one being fiction and the other being non-fiction, it is noticed that God uses all experiences and situations in life to use His children to spread the good news of the gospel. The gospel did eventually reach Rome despite the many struggles that Paul endured in his journeys to share the gospel with the Romans. This instance goes to show that God uses the journey of an individual’s life as a way to spread the gospel more opposed to waiting for the “destination” for His grace and mercy to be shown.

  6. The narrative of Paul’s journey to Rome is more detailed than any other journey by sea in the Bible. Considering that Luke is known for summarizing and condensing in his writing one may wonder why he wrote so much detail about this journey to Rome. One idea very well could be that Luke was on this journey with Paul. It was common for historical writers to summarize up until the time that they were living in and include themselves in the story as a way of showing credibility. Another reason could be the noticeable amount of parallels between Paul and Jesus. Both were arrested by the Jews, handed over to the Romans, tried, and both faced injustice as a result of the establishment of religion in Jerusalem (Long). “Luke is trying to show that ‘come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire’” (Long). What I think that we can take away from this is that if you are following God’s will and purpose for your life and ministry, there will always be a way. It will not be easy or simple but it is possible because God will provide.

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